Bronson Arroyo is making almost $2 million this year pitching for the World Champion Boston Red Sox. With his team in first place, poised for another run at the playoffs, Arroyo’s debut CD Covering the Bases, a collection of rock and pop cover songs, has sold well enough across New England to reach Number Two on Billboard‘s national Heatseekers chart.
So why does this man sound so down?
Arroyo can’t help it: He’s a serious fan of Nineties alternative, a slice of rock history not exactly known for its exuberance or optimism — or, for that matter, its athleticism. Six-foot-five, the possessor of a rich baritone singing voice and a nasty breaking ball that can make even the most chemically enhanced major league hitters tie themselves up in knots, Arroyo realizes that his affection for misery-wallowing alt-rock might seem just a tad ridiculous. “The music I enjoy doesn’t fit with how I feel about life,” he admits, sitting in the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park about an hour before a recent game against the Kansas City Royals. “I’m a happy-go-lucky guy, but I listen to stuff that’s dark, and it makes me feel good,” Arroyo confesses, as a cluster of female fans scream his name. “I can’t write the kind of stuff that I love listening to — it won’t come out of me. When I write, it comes out like Jimmy Buffett.”
That’s why Covering the Bases features eleven very un-Buffett songs that Arroyo taught himself while killing time in hotel rooms, studying sheet music and MTV Unplugged performances, including Pearl Jam (“Black”), Stone Temple Pilots (“Plush”) and Alice in Chains (“Down in a Hole”).
The one exception on the disc — a concession to producer Loren Harriet, who previously supervised Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams’ recording debut — is a cover of the Standells’ 1966 nugget “Dirty Water,” the Boston anthem that has become a Red Sox rallying cry. “Dirty Water” reaches back into oldies territory, the onetime stomping grounds of Arroyo’s father, Gus, who played in local pickup bands in Florida in the Sixties, a fan of the Beatles and Santana. In the late Nineties, while he was traveling with minor league teams in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, Arroyo realized his own love for the guitar.
Since going public with his hobby — Arroyo has become something of a regular at Red Sox charity events, and he headlined a sold-out show at a Boston nightclub during last month’s All-Star break — he has rubbed elbows with some of his own heroes, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready. Mike Inez, formerly of Alice in Chains, guests on the album, and drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp) and session bassist Leland Sklar headed a team of seasoned professionals supporting the pitcher in the studio.
All involved held their breath until Arroyo was nearly finished with his first take. “It was an audition for everyone,” he recalls. “My producers had never heard me sing. Halfway through the song, Loren called my agent and said, ‘Fuck, he’s pretty good.'”
Another notable participant was the horror writer Stephen King, who lent a spoken-word monologue to the interlude on “Everlong.” Although a rabid Red Sox fan, King had initially been reluctant to contribute. “He said, ‘I’m not putting anything down if it’s crap,'” Arroyo says. “He was actually really shy. He said, ‘I don’t like talking to athletes too much.'”
The Red Sox, of course, have made pop culture as much a part of the organization’s marketing plan as its players’ on-field skills in recent years. Center fielder Johnny Damon, one of three teammates singing backup on “Dirty Water,” has made a brand name for himself with his rock-star mane and facial hair, and the team has been in the news as much this year for its appearances in the movies (Fever Pitch) and on television (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) as its victories. “It starts at the top,” Arroyo says. Part-owner Tom Werner made his money in television, and youthful general manager Theo Epstein, himself a part-time rocker, is acutely aware that pop culture presence helps sell his team.
On the Pirates, Arroyo says, there was “a wall” between the players and the front office. “I always describe it like the principal and the student — you see them in the hallway and you look the other way,” he says, flashing a smile. “Here, it’s not like that. They don’t restrict us in any way, and that’s what makes it fun to play here. You can come to the park with cornrows in your hair [as Arroyo does from time to time] and not have somebody bitch at you.”
The bottom line, he says, is performance. “I like knowing that if I pitch like shit, I’ll get booed. But if I pitch good, I’ll get a standing ovation from 35,000 people. And when I go out at night, people will be like, ‘Dude, I love ya.'”
As for music, his hopes are much more modest, and they’ve already been surpassed by the surprise success of Covering the Bases. “What still makes me happy,” he says, “is sitting with twenty people, playing songs they’ve heard on the radio.”